“’Do people always fall in love with things they can’t have?’ ‘Always,’ Carol said, smiling, too.”
The Price of Salt is alternately billed as a tale of forbidden love and a tale of obsession. Only one of those actually fits the novel. Because while it is true that Therese Belivet allows her life to be completely consumed with Carol Aird, a woman she meets while working a holiday job in a department store, it mostly follows the kind of obsession I would suspect most people would experience when they allow their desires to be followed for the first time. Highsmith has a reputation as a suspense writer thanks to Strangers On a Train and the Ripley novels, so I suspect there’s an effort to apply suspense label that doesn’t really apply here. The only danger in Therese’s relationship with Carol is that society would keep them apart if it could.
Even calling it a love story appears misleading thanks to all the genre conventions we have come to apply to that term. When I began reading this book I found myself questioning how two people who can be so bitter, withholding, and, well, bipolar with each other could ever be believed to be a great love story. The thing is, Highsmith is being a great deal more realistic about human behavior than anyone sticking to the tried-and-true cliche route. Therese and Carol are bitter because they found love and if society had a say they would leave each other and be unhappy in another more conventional relationship. Just by being together they are taking a risk. Same goes for the withholding angle, and for the occasional lapses into frustration and anger.
The particular strains on their budding relationship come in the form of their male companions. Therese has been dating a dull boy named Richard. She doesn’t love him and has done her best not to lead him on but he is determined not to be cast aside. Carol, meanwhile, is in the middle of a divorce from a ruthless man who is trying to cut Carol out of their daughter’s life. When his machinations against them escalate, Carol is stuck in the unenviable position of being forced to choose between her love and her daughter.
It isn’t happy reading, and sometimes you want to shake Therese and Carol, but the glory of The Price of Salt lies in its warts-and-all honesty, in the elaborate character study Highsmith has lovingly crafted. That the book refuses to condemn Carol and Therese even as forces threaten to tear them apart particularly makes it stand out in early gay literature–even if it did mean that Highsmith had to publish the novel under an assumed name. I can see where a novel like this would have given great hope and comfort to LGBT people when it was published and for decades after.
Check out my LGBT recommendations page for more.